Judge Rosenberg Weighs into Courthouse Issue

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yolo_county_courthouseTwo weeks ago Davis Enterprise columnist Rich Rifkin challenged the new Yolo County courthouse project.  This week, Judge David Rosenberg has taken it upon himself to respond to Mr. Rifkin’s column.

In his over 1200-word response, the Judge wrote, “His column is so full of misstatements and misconceptions that I felt compelled to respond.”

The Judge argued that “This project is not straining any budget — state, county or local. Not one penny of taxpayer money is used for the courthouse project. No state general fund money is used for the project. The project is completely funded by a statewide surcharge assessed against everyone convicted of a violation of the criminal law.”

Now, as Rich Rifkin points out, this statement is not altogether true.  In fact, a good deal of the money comes from traffic and parking enforcement, which are not criminal offenses.

The Judge is accurate that there is not state general fund money that is being used for the project.  However, Mr. Rifkin never claimed there was.

Mr. Rifkin’s idea was for the legislature to allow that money to be used for the general fund and current cuts to the budget.

Judge Rosenberg argued to do so “would violate state law, which requires that the money collected from people who violate the law should be used for court facilities.”  He further argued that “to do so would ignore the constitution, which would mandate some sort of nexus between the fee and the expenditure — using the funds from those convicted of crime to pay off a county’s debt has no nexus; using the funds to pay for court facilities certainly does.”

Ironically enough, the Judge then rejoined that the money actually is being used for the things he says it cannot be used for.  He wrote, “Rifkin fails to mention that the state Legislature last year borrowed a substantial portion of this fund for ‘other purposes’ and is poised to divert a substantial amount of this fund again this year.”

He adds, “Clearly, the Legislature — which thrashes around for available pots of money in difficult times — has, in fact, diverted courthouse construction funds for ‘other purposes’ already.”

However, Judge Rosenberg was probably grateful to add further, “Fortunately, the Yolo courthouse project is so high on the list of critical projects that it will unaffected by this diversion.”

Finally he argued, “Pursuing Rifkin’s ‘logic’ to the ultimate conclusion, government should not pay for capital projects but should divert its money to pay for debt service or operations. I suppose the City of Davis should not have built or repaired roads, or parks or pools, or the Veterans’ Memorial Center or the Senior Center — per Rifkin, the money would have been better spent in operations.”

But Judge Rosenberg missed an essential point here, in that those monies did not come at a time when billions were being cut from education and employees were being laid off or furloughed.  In fact, some of them impacted the court’s own employees.

We are building a new courthouse at a time of great economic hardship.  This, at a time when the court itself lacks the funds for a functional computer system.

Wrote Judge Rosenberg, “Rifkin’s column then goes on to denigrate courthouse projects as ‘Taj Mahals.’  That is inaccurate and unfair.”

He is correct here, it seems the more appropriate reference would be to Hearst Castle, a largess built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst during the Great Depression.  This may be worse, funded on the backs of the most disadvantaged of all disadvantaged groups – convicted criminals.

Judge Rosenberg argued that judges typically waive these fees on criminal convicts, but that is not our observation.  We have observed many plea agreements and sentences, and only a small handful involved a waiver.

The courthouse fee is, of course, only part of the fines imposed on convicts.  It amounts to $30.

Some may say that people who commit crimes should pay.  And there is a logic to that argument.

However, if someone goes to prison they get their fees paid off through the serving of time.  If, however, they are on probation and do not get prison time, they get hammered with hundreds, if not into the thousands, in fines.

These are people who are likely not working, if they are working it’s at minimum wage, and even on a monthly payment plan it puts a huge burden on them and their ability to turn their lives around.

We ran a story on part of this last August.  The fines are so extensive at times, according to information we got from the Public Defender’s office last July, that clients are requesting jail time in lieu of receiving a violation of probation for the failure to pay fines.  That means that, in effect, the fines are self-defeating to the effort of truly generating revenue.

So, not only does the court not get the fees, but the taxpayers have to pay for the incarceration of the inmate.  Which means that at least some of the money the fund generates actually comes at the expense of other items in the budget.

In researching this phenomena, it appears to be a relatively new trend, perhaps introduced in the last twenty years.

In October 2007, the New York Times had an editorial, “Out of Prison and Deep in Debt.”

In it they wrote, “With the nation’s incarcerated population at 2.1 million and growing — and corrections costs topping $60 billion a year — states are rightly looking for ways to keep people from coming back to prison once they get out. Programs that help ex-offenders find jobs, housing, mental health care and drug treatment are part of the solution. States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives many of them right back to prison.”

As the editorial points out, “A former inmate living at or even below the poverty level can be dunned by four or five departments at once — and can be required to surrender 100 percent of his or her earnings. People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.”

In fact, one study found that 12 percent of probation revocations were due not to the individual going back to a life of crime, but simply the failure to pay their debts.  And many are thrown back into prison, which makes the system virtually self-defeating as a means to secure revenue.

Even “small” fines of $1000, with a payment plan, put a huge burden on an individual likely to make minimum wage, likely to have treatment obligations that preclude them from working full time, and needing to pay for rent and other living amenities.

The spin coming from those defending the court policies is that the money gets waived for hardship.  But, to be honest, that is not what we are seeing.  In fact, we see cases where people who are making less than $500 a month are being forced to pay $100 a month to the courts.

The one point I agree with Judge Rosenberg on is that we indeed need a new courthouse.  We do.  The question is the timing and manner in which it is constructed.

Wrote Judge Rosenberg, “Courthouses are important public buildings that last many generations. The current historic courthouse in Yolo County has lasted almost a century. The new Yolo courthouse will be a courthouse for the next hundred years.”

He continued, “It will not be an insubstantial building — it will house 14 courtrooms, a jury assembly area to accommodate more than 300 prospective jurors, clerks’ offices and counters for the public, holding cells for in-custody defendants, security stations and many other features unique to courthouses.”

Moreover, it will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified – which is a good thing, but does not go to the heart of the matter.

The heart is this, the courthouse will hold 14 courtrooms and many other court uses.

He wrote, “Rifkin then criticizes the 14 courtrooms planned in the new courthouse by asserting that each will be twice the size of the current courtrooms. It is certainly correct that the new courtrooms will be twice the size of current courtrooms. But what Rifkin fails to say is that current courtrooms are less than half the size of a standard California courtroom per state minimum standards.”

And if Mr. Rifkin had taken me up on my invitation to visit the courthouse, he would agree with Judge Rosenberg, as he sees how cramped the typical courtroom is with people waiting in the hallways for cases to be called.

He continued, “We have inadequate space for jurors, who often have to sit on stairways. We have no space for children. The wiring, plumbing and electrical systems are ancient. Hallways are shared by in-custody defendants, witnesses, victims, jurors, members of the public, judges and staff. It is truly medieval.”

I agree, particularly the holding cells which are tiny and archaic and do not appear that they should be legal.

There are a number of problems with the current courthouse.  The first is that it is not large enough.  It only has eight courtrooms and we currently use 14 courtrooms and that does not even include Traffic Court.  So the arraignment facility is across Third Street, there is another facility that is just built over on Main Street almost by the railroad tracks, and Traffic Court is housed over  on 1st Street.  Small claims court is another facility as well.

Right now they march the in-custody inmates from a facility on the other side of Third Street, across Third, and into the first floor of the courthouse.  They are wearing jail garb and chained together into a line.  It is not only not ideal from a security standpoint but it is also dehumanizing.

I think Rich Rifkin’s point is very well taken on the timing issue. 

And I question the appropriateness of a sitting judge weighing in on these matters in such a public way.   For one thing, this is not before any kind of deliberative body that will be considering this.

I say this with all due respect to Judge Rosenberg, who in my view is one of the better judges that we have.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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37 thoughts on “Judge Rosenberg Weighs into Courthouse Issue”

  1. Dr. Wu

    I have put in my time on Jury duty in Woodland and while its fair to say that things are a bit cramped I did not think the jury facilities were inadequate and I never had to wait in a hall. This statement strikes me as an exaggeration.

    The bottom line is that a new courthouse should be a low priority right now no matter how its financed and money is scarce all over.

  2. Dr. Wu

    I have put in my time on Jury duty in Woodland and while its fair to say that things are a bit cramped I did not think the jury facilities were inadequate and I never had to wait in a hall. This statement strikes me as an exaggeration.

    The bottom line is that a new courthouse should be a low priority right now no matter how its financed and money is scarce all over.

  3. Alphonso

    Redirect the collected fees to to help maintain the Prison Complex, which is now funded from the General Fund. Then use the General Fund savings for education. All that is needed is some legislative action to get this accomplished.

    The Judge is not sounding impartial on this matter.

    The current building would not seem to be as cramped if the number of court cases/trials was reduced to a more reasonable level. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the recent court “activity” was manufactured to prove they needed a new courthouse. I agree with Dr. Wu, a new courthouse is a Low Priority.

  4. Alphonso

    Redirect the collected fees to to help maintain the Prison Complex, which is now funded from the General Fund. Then use the General Fund savings for education. All that is needed is some legislative action to get this accomplished.

    The Judge is not sounding impartial on this matter.

    The current building would not seem to be as cramped if the number of court cases/trials was reduced to a more reasonable level. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the recent court “activity” was manufactured to prove they needed a new courthouse. I agree with Dr. Wu, a new courthouse is a Low Priority.

  5. Rifkin

    In case anyone is interested in my response to Rosenberg’s op-ed, [url=http://lexicondaily.blogspot.com/2011/04/judge-rosenberg-claims-my-column-was.html]I replied to him here[/i].

    [i]”Blatherskite = Rich Rifkin”[/i]

    Avatar, you sure are one witty man.

  6. Rifkin

    In case anyone is interested in my response to Rosenberg’s op-ed, [url=http://lexicondaily.blogspot.com/2011/04/judge-rosenberg-claims-my-column-was.html]I replied to him here[/i].

    [i]”Blatherskite = Rich Rifkin”[/i]

    Avatar, you sure are one witty man.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    Alphonso: The trial issue is a point I raised last article. I think that point not withstanding there will need to be a courthouse at some point. However, I really take issue with building it on the backs of those paying fines and also it is unseemly for Rosenberg as a judge to take such a public stance in my view.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    Alphonso: The trial issue is a point I raised last article. I think that point not withstanding there will need to be a courthouse at some point. However, I really take issue with building it on the backs of those paying fines and also it is unseemly for Rosenberg as a judge to take such a public stance in my view.

  9. Rifkin

    In my response to Judge Rosenberg, David Greenwald told me (by email) that I was mistaken in one respect: he said that the court construction fees are not waived in cases where people are sent to prison. David explained that they are normally worked off (unless, I suppose, the convict has the money to pay them). I made note of this in my blog post and credited David with the correction.

    What had me confused was that a judge I spoke with told me the judge can and will waive court fees if the convicted person has no money. However, it seems that David is right. The fees which can be waived are different from those imposed by SB 1407.

    P.S. Don, thanks for fixing my URL link.

  10. Rifkin

    In my response to Judge Rosenberg, David Greenwald told me (by email) that I was mistaken in one respect: he said that the court construction fees are not waived in cases where people are sent to prison. David explained that they are normally worked off (unless, I suppose, the convict has the money to pay them). I made note of this in my blog post and credited David with the correction.

    What had me confused was that a judge I spoke with told me the judge can and will waive court fees if the convicted person has no money. However, it seems that David is right. The fees which can be waived are different from those imposed by SB 1407.

    P.S. Don, thanks for fixing my URL link.

  11. Sue Greenwald

    First, I don’t see why David Greenwald thinks we need a new courthouse when he himself continually writes that Yolo County moves forward on too many cases. Even with the overly high number of cases that we have today, I was in a jury pool recently and it is manageable. If Yolo county wants to expand the courthouse, there is a large parking lot in the back of the building where an inexpensive annex can be build without detracting from the beautiful existing building.

    Secondly, $173 million dollars is an ENORMOUS amount of money for a courthouse and particularly for a courthouse that serves a county of only about 200,000 people. 200,000 is not much larger than an average-sized suburban town. $173 million comes to over $2,000 for each household in the county. I think this is an absurd amount of money to spend on one courthouse that replaces a very nice existing courthouse.

  12. Sue Greenwald

    First, I don’t see why David Greenwald thinks we need a new courthouse when he himself continually writes that Yolo County moves forward on too many cases. Even with the overly high number of cases that we have today, I was in a jury pool recently and it is manageable. If Yolo county wants to expand the courthouse, there is a large parking lot in the back of the building where an inexpensive annex can be build without detracting from the beautiful existing building.

    Secondly, $173 million dollars is an ENORMOUS amount of money for a courthouse and particularly for a courthouse that serves a county of only about 200,000 people. 200,000 is not much larger than an average-sized suburban town. $173 million comes to over $2,000 for each household in the county. I think this is an absurd amount of money to spend on one courthouse that replaces a very nice existing courthouse.

  13. Sue Greenwald

    Secondly, contrary to David Rosenberg’s assertion, the money earmarked to build this courthouse could be used for other purposes. The courthouse is funded mostly by surcharges on parking tickets and traffic fines. $4.50 of every parking ticket and over half of every traffic ticket goes to the court construction tax.

    The legislature could rescind the court construction tax bill, cease to issue the lease-revenue bonds and pass a new bill reinstating the exact same fines and surcharges and direct them towards court operations and maintenance. This would free up $5 billion dollars for other purposes.

    Just think of what $5 billion could do for our state universities, schools, cities and social services. $5 billion dollars represents a large percentage of our discretionary expenditures.

    $5 billion is a ridiculous amount to be spend on lavish buildings — and yes, they are lavish — in times of fiscal hardship.

  14. Sue Greenwald

    Secondly, contrary to David Rosenberg’s assertion, the money earmarked to build this courthouse could be used for other purposes. The courthouse is funded mostly by surcharges on parking tickets and traffic fines. $4.50 of every parking ticket and over half of every traffic ticket goes to the court construction tax.

    The legislature could rescind the court construction tax bill, cease to issue the lease-revenue bonds and pass a new bill reinstating the exact same fines and surcharges and direct them towards court operations and maintenance. This would free up $5 billion dollars for other purposes.

    Just think of what $5 billion could do for our state universities, schools, cities and social services. $5 billion dollars represents a large percentage of our discretionary expenditures.

    $5 billion is a ridiculous amount to be spend on lavish buildings — and yes, they are lavish — in times of fiscal hardship.

  15. Sue Greenwald

    [quote]Secondly, contrary to David Rosenberg’s assertion, the money earmarked to build this courthouse could be used for other purposes.[/quote]I mean thirdly.

  16. Sue Greenwald

    [quote]Secondly, contrary to David Rosenberg’s assertion, the money earmarked to build this courthouse could be used for other purposes.[/quote]I mean thirdly.

  17. E Roberts Musser

    sg: “The courthouse is funded mostly by surcharges on parking tickets and traffic fines. $4.50 of every parking ticket and over half of every traffic ticket goes to the court construction tax.”

    It should be noted that most people pay traffic fines whether they are guilty or not, bc it would cost too much to fight the charge – a day off of work and/or the cost of hiring an attorney. Paying for a courthouse w traffic tickets provides an incentive for law enforcement to set up speed traps and the like – very worrisome.

    Secondly, it hardly seems appropriate to be building a new courthouse as we lay off teachers, court staff, social workers… but again, the “silo effect” at work – “oh, the money was already earmarked to build a huge new courthouse”. Then “unearmark” it – clearly it was done before!

  18. E Roberts Musser

    sg: “The courthouse is funded mostly by surcharges on parking tickets and traffic fines. $4.50 of every parking ticket and over half of every traffic ticket goes to the court construction tax.”

    It should be noted that most people pay traffic fines whether they are guilty or not, bc it would cost too much to fight the charge – a day off of work and/or the cost of hiring an attorney. Paying for a courthouse w traffic tickets provides an incentive for law enforcement to set up speed traps and the like – very worrisome.

    Secondly, it hardly seems appropriate to be building a new courthouse as we lay off teachers, court staff, social workers… but again, the “silo effect” at work – “oh, the money was already earmarked to build a huge new courthouse”. Then “unearmark” it – clearly it was done before!

  19. roger bockrath

    If anybody missed the link posted by Rich Rifkin above, to his response to Presiding Judge Dave Rosenberg’s op-ed piece, SCROLL BACK UP AND READ RICHES RESPONSE. He pretty much blows Rosenberg’s diatribe out of the water. Truth be told, I’m a bit embarrassed to have a presiding judge who writes so poorly, misstates and deceives at every opportunity and fails miserably at making his point. If Rosenberg is going to continue writing op-ed pieces, he needs to get an editor.

    But I guess he is highly motivated to defend this unfortunately timed $173 million expenditure which will heretofore be referred to as “Rosenberg’s Courthouse”. It’s gonna look great on his resume when he runs for higher office.

  20. Rifkin

    [i]”I guess he is highly motivated to defend this unfortunately timed $173 million expenditure which will heretofore be referred to as “Rosenberg’s Courthouse”. [/i]

    Judge Rosenberg needs some fancy new digs to house this fancy painting* of him ([url]http://www.deladier.com/images/5204.jpg[/url]) which, I am quite sure, we paid for.

    If anyone knows how much this painting cost the taxpayers, please post the dollar figure. My guess is it was at least $10,000, perhaps twice that.

    *I susect this tradition of having a portrait made of every sitting superior court judge is an old one, going back to before the Civil War, before we had photography. It would not bother me to have us save all the money it takes to paint portraits of every judge in California and give that money to needy UC and CSU students as “portrait scholarships”.

  21. Tecnichick

    Of course the King wants a new Castle, he has outgrown his old one by the growth of his head. Al the more reason for him to fine people, so that they will build it that much quicker.

  22. Sue Greenwald

    I don’t mean this to be an attack on an individual. Like Dave Rosenberg, I also love beautiful public buildings. I just think it is appropriate to think about and weigh extraordinarily large expenditures in this time of fiscal hardship. $5 billion dollars for new courthouses statewide should be closely examined.

  23. Mr Obvious

    [quote]Paying for a courthouse w traffic tickets provides an incentive for law enforcement to set up speed traps and the like – very worrisome. [/quote]

    You should read vehicle code sections 40802-40804. Speed traps are not allowed under California Law.

    [quote]Now, as Rich Rifkin points out, this statement is not altogether true. In fact, a good deal of the money comes from traffic and parking enforcement, which are not criminal offenses.[/quote]

    Drunk driving, hit and run, reckless driving, driving on a suspended license are not crimes? That’s weird, if it’s not a crime then how can you go to jail for it? They are all listed as misdemeanors and can become felonies, there must be an error in the vehicle code.

  24. Mr Obvious

    I think I’ve found the problem. DUI is a traffic violation. I think you may be talking about traffic infractions like stop signs, red lights, and open alcoholic beverages.

  25. Iyah

    Continuing to build new courthouses in a time when Counties are filing bankruptcy and the State is grappling with Billion $ deficits is irresponsible. That money can be put to so many better uses.

  26. Mr Obvious

    [quote]Continuing to build new courthouses in a time when Counties are filing bankruptcy and the State is grappling with Billion $ deficits is irresponsible. [/quote]

    What counties are filing for bankruptcy?

  27. E Roberts Musser

    Mr. Obvious: “You should read vehicle code sections 40802-40804. Speed traps are not allowed under California Law.”

    Law enforcement is known for setting up “traps” to catch people supposedly committing traffic infractions. I got caught in one of these one time – for running a stop sign. Had never done anything like that in my entire life – had a perfect driving record w/o so much as a speeding ticket. The cop informed me they had been having “problems” at that intersection, and is the reason he was sitting there. I went back later to check the intersection myself bc something didn’t add up. Guess what? There was a big branch overhanging the stop sign. Now tell me the cop didn’t set that whole situation up…

  28. Mr Obvious

    [quote]Now tell me the cop didn’t set that whole situation up… [/quote]

    I can see how one might think the police would have the foresight to plant trees knowing in 50 years a branch might block a stop sign so they could wright tickets. You were set up.

    I’ve been to traffic court a few times. The “accused” often have a different perception of reality of what actually happened. Most cop cars have video now. Here is how it plays out.

    Cop: I was parked here and the defendant ran a stop sign.

    Defendant: THIS COP IS A LIAR, I stop every time. I’ve been stopping at that stop sign for 20 years.

    Cop: I’ll play the video.

    The video shows the defendant rolling the stop sign at 10 MPH.

    Judge to defendant: Do you still think you stopped?

  29. David M. Greenwald

    I actually had a situation occur where I thought I had stopped then was shown the videotape and saw that my perception was not reality.

  30. E Roberts Musser

    To Mr. Obvious: I think you are missing my point. I do not in any way deny that I ran the stop sign. And I am very thankful some kid was not riding their bike through the intersection at the time I came through. But the cop knew that intersection was a problem. He (or anyone) could see for himself the branch was overhanging the stop sign, and should have had the city trim it. Heck, I almost went back and lopped the thing off myself (it was easily accessible), but decided against it, as I would probably have gotten arrested for damaging city property. However, there is no doubt in my mind the overhanging branch is the reason I ran the stop sign. I didn’t see the sign in time to stop. Now why would the police leave the branch there, knowing it was blocking the stop sign, unless they were looking for a means of revenue enhancement? The officer specifically said he was there bc it was a problem intersection where many had been running the stop sign on a regular basis.

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